Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics - Christoph Cox. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018
by Jordan Lacey
I was excited to read of the release of Christoph Cox’s Sonic Flux. I had wondered for some time when we could expect the release of this important book, given the highly influential papers with which Cox first proposed (to my knowledge) the sonic flux concept, “Sound Art and the Sonic Unconscious” (2009) and “Beyond Representation and Signification: Towards a Sonic Materialism” (2011). These papers were influential to the evolution of my own thinking, specifically toward the formation of the “sonic rupture” concept in which I applied Cox’s sonic flux and its use of Deleuzian notions of affect to conceptualize and discuss the vitality of the material and the way in which the creative practitioner could interrelate with this flux – or affective flow – as a means to manifest new works. The “sonic flux” concept was, in my view, an exceptional example of Deleuze’s championing of the minor sciences (which I view as narratives and practices outside of dominant discourse) and conceptual toolkits (theories that can be put to use by practitioners). Cox had provided the field with an important concept that could be applied by practitioners in a myriad of creative ways.
It was surprising, therefore, to discover a book that does not primarily function as a manual or catalyst for practice but situates itself within a philosophical canon that works towards a universalizing theory within which sound art practices can be defined and understood. Cox is a Professor of Philosophy. As such, an attempt to trace a genealogy of philosophical thought linking his sonic flux theory to sound art practices is to be expected. And indeed, he does this successfully. But this is also the problem – it sets up the sonic flux as a universalizing theory rather than a mutable concept that can be applied by the “minor sciences,” which we might consider to be the idiosyncratic, divergent practices of artists. He describes sonic flux as “the notion of sound as an immemorial material flow to which human expressions contribute but that precedes and exceeds those expressions” (p. 2). As such, his theory can be seen as part of the new materialism movement, which hopes to overcome the limitations of representation and signification, turning instead toward “matter and energy (as) fundamentally constituting the world (as) autonomous from the human mind and indifferent to our beliefs, desires, and descriptions of it” (p. 6). Yet the sonic flux concept is a description that captures sound-art practices within a totalizing ontology, rather than providing accommodation for the multiplicity of practitioner voices whose works actualize the potential of the sonic flux. This is a tension I felt throughout the book.
Sonic Flux is divided into three parts. Part 1 discusses materialism in relation to the theory of the sonic flux and the historical lineage of philosophers he uses to define it: primarily Schopenhauer’s “rejection of musical representation,” Nietzsche’s argument for “matter as creative and transformative without external agency, a ceaseless becoming and overcoming” a.k.a. the “Dionysian flux,” Deleuze’s “intensities and affects” that populate the “plane of immanence,” and DeLanda’s non-linear histories. Schaeffer and Attali are discussed at length, as are the practices of Christian Marclay and Alvin Lucier. Part 2 investigates time in relation to the sonic arts, which is used to discuss an important theme for Cox: the differences between sound art and music: “Sound art, I propose, draws attention to a transcendental or intensive domain of sound that has gradually become manifest over the course of the twentieth century. In contrast with ordinary music, speech, and signal, I will call this domain noise” (p. 113), with noise being “the ceaseless flow of sonic matter that is actualized in, but not exhausted by, speech, music, and articulate sound of all sorts” (p. 119). It is here that Leibniz is given lengthy treatment (as with Deleuze) in relation to his concept of the monad – that each individual captures and filters the expansive roar of the world, just as speech and signals are actualizations of the ceaseless acoustic flow. In each case, the flow is always in excess. The output of multiple artists are drawn upon to confirm this position, with specific focus on Max Neuhaus’ and John Cage’s durational experimentations with sound through compositions and installation works. Using these examples (and others) Cox claims that “music tends to tame and territorialize the flux” by “segmenting the sonic continuum” or “routing the sonic flux through systems and codings” (p. 137). The flux is an intensive domain that is the subject of sound art’s inquiry, rather than music’s need to systematize the flow. Part 3 contains only one chapter titled “Audio/Visual: Against Synaesthetics.” In my opinion it is the most important section of the book for the practitioner, in that it provides a conceptual toolkit for thinking about the non-synchronous connection between sound and vision. The desire to subjugate sound to emphasize the art of the moving image is convincingly challenged by making reference to multiple artists who have made images subservient to sounds or have mixed them asynchronously. It provides pathways for artists to think about how they can use both sound and vision in different ways. Interestingly, there is no conclusion tying the three parts together. I was hoping for one, because it was difficult to establish a link between part 3 and parts 1 and 2.
This is by necessity an incredibly brief overview. For instance, it hardly does justice to Cox’s detailed discussion of the history of playback devices in relation to the sonic flux concept and the extensive range of philosophical and artistic references he uses to make his points. I foresee that the book will become a staple in sound studies, something Seth Kim Cohen, a vocal critic of sonic materialism, suggests on the back-cover blurb. The book’s strength is that it offers the first philosophical genealogy (to my knowledge) that establishes the sonic flux theory as an ontology for understanding the emergence of sound art in the second half of the twentieth century.
However, it is this attempt to universalize the sonic, as concept and as experience, that is central to some of my misgivings about the book. I have already commented on them, but I present them here as a set of questions or perhaps queries:
1. A central argument in Cox’s book is that sound artists somehow delve into the flux, whereas music, like language, is understood as the signals that emerge, or actualize, from the flux. This is an attempt to separate sound art and music, which I have never found terribly convincing. For instance, improvising musicians, surely, are always immersed in the sonic flux and connected with the acoustic flow of things – Cox’s noise – as they listen and play; equally, sound artists who create installations have surely actualized something that could be repeated, much as a piece of music or the speaking of languages can be repeated. How many times have Cage’s sound works been repeated, for instance? It could be argued that by encoding chance into his compositions, a different outcome will occur each time, which in a way supports Cox’s sonic flux theory. But this is also the case for any musical improviser who reworks and explores a piece of music, which works against Cox’s notion that music is somehow a reduction of the flux into systems and codes. The music of African tribal drummers, Aboriginal ceremonies, and other indigenous musicians also express an acoustic flow with their often cyclical and drone-like qualities, which are anything but systematic reductions. How we choose to categorize the actualizations (sound art, music, voice, etc.) of the flux seems to me to become an arbitrary exercise. My question: Do we need to make a distinction between these terms, given that very similar creative processes are employed in the creation of both sound art and music?
2. Given the cross-overs with vitalist materialism, I was surprised to see no mention of Rosi Braidotti and only a footnote making reference to Karen Barad. Like Cox, these important feminist thinkers also challenge representation by drawing our attention to the material world and its vitality. Braidotti calls this “zoë.” Cox also uses this term (p. 31) while never mentioning her work. Admittedly, I haven’t seen Braidotti make mention of his work either, but her use of zoë in relation to new materialisms, to my knowledge, predates Cox’s use. Also, she is interested in the sounds of acoustic environments and how these affect, for instance, musical developments (see her book Nomadic Theory), and both are Deleuzians. These cross-overs require analysis. I am reminded of some feminist critiques of Cox, that his theories are too focused on white men (see, e.g., “Whiteness and the ontological turn in sound studies” by Marie Thompson). Although I think Cox can easily address these critiques, given his reference to non-Western cosmologies and non-white scholars and artists, I think it is valid to note here that there is an absence in this book of feminist thinkers who have much to say about the topic of new/vital materialism. My question: What are the relationships between sonic materialism and new materialism, explored from a feminist perspective? (While I don’t agree with all of her criticisms of Cox, Annie Goh’s recent article, “Sounding Situated Knowledges,” is instructive.)
3. Following on from question 2, there is something that seems to support the idea of the immutability of matter – in so far as matter has always existed, not that matter is unchanging – in Cox’s theory. He claims there was a material world before humans were able to perceive it: “Surely reality, nature, and sound far precede our arrival and cultural production, we latecomers in the history of the universe; and surely human history and culture are a part of that natural history rather than miraculous exceptions to it” (p. 17). This strikes me as a type of uniformitarianism (a geological doctrine believing in regularity and invariance) albeit one that allows for the intensities and affects of the flux. Alternatively, Barad’s theory of posthumanist performativity, derived from quantum entanglement, suggests that the world performs itself, and we to it, dependent on our perceptual and material entanglements. So, if the world is in flux, perhaps that is it – an entanglement of intensities and forces that presents itself to us as a fixed material world. Simply put, the material world seems fixed, as that is how we perceive it to be: but who knows, for instance, how those energy vibrations we think of as sound would manifest for a being without ears or skin? My question: Can we resolve the idea of an immutable material world with the idea of a sonic flux that is always in flow, capricious, and, by definition, potential?
4. Finally, as a practitioner, I didn’t feel the flux in Cox’s book as much as I did in his two essays, mentioned above. However, I can feel the flux that Cox writes about when I read, for instance, Salomé Voegelin or Brandon LaBelle. Although I wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate a clear canon or lineage of thought, as distilled from their writings, to my students to the extent that I could with Cox’s Sonic Flux, I can certainly hear their writing. In Cox’s book I identify a rigorous approach to the affirmation of a specific conceptual position. With Voegelin and LaBelle, it is as if I can hear them listening while they are writing. When I read their works, I feel awash in a flux of possibilities and relations, and when I emerge from this, I can make my own conclusions (actualizations) which I can then put to work in my own practice. This is what I think Deleuze (at times with Guattari) was pointing toward when he spoke of minor sciences and conceptual toolkits – that philosophy might become praxis, and that praxis would become processual, with multiple traces of thought overlapping and interweaving, providing us with complex ways of being in the world. And, so, another question: Is sound studies at risk of becoming canonized? Do we need a fixed thought system, particularly when that thought system is actually describing something so evocatively close to what sound is and how it is experienced – a flow, a flux of potentialities, which artists, musicians, designers, and creatives, in general, can actualize into limitless possibilities?
For this reason, from the perspective of the practitioner, I felt the critique of synchronicity in “Against Synaesthetics” was the most relevant part of the book. The concepts therein can operate as a tool for thinking about the relationship between sound and light within the context of an art work. By way of example, I happened to be preparing a sound installation for an exhibition (Translating Ambiance) that included sound and light, while I was reading Cox’s reflections on synchronicity. My simultaneous reading of this chapter catalyzed some conversation with my collaborator that eventually changed the nature of the work. The discussion concerned a choice as to whether we would synchronize our voltage responsive lights with the installation’s hydrophonic river recordings, or connect the lights to a live microphone feed of an adjacent arterial road. The point being that Cox’s arguments against synesthesia encouraged us to pursue further experimentations, which led to a more compelling work.
Of course, trained philosophers might engage with this book quite differently. Perhaps for them the book is a necessary way to give sound studies a serious voice within the academic world – and if that is the case, surely Cox’s fastidious research and clear genealogies will be relevant to such discourses. However, I for one hope sound studies will maintain its spirit of experimentation, divergence, and openness. If the sonic flux concept can preserve its mutability and ambiguity rather than becoming a canon of philosophical discourse I believe it can retain its place as a tool for the minor sciences (qua creative practice).